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Friday, April 20, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Bryant analyzes bj-league's 'final four'


Staff writer

Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant knows the ins and outs of each of the bj-league's seven other teams.

After all, his team has played 80 regular-season games since the league began in the fall of 2005 and he has watched dozens of other games on film.

Moments after the Apache's season's regular-season finale on April 1, Bryant spoke at length about a number of issues, including the upcoming playoffs.

"I think it's going to be a great playoffs," Bryant said with a smile.

Bryant commended the efforts of the first-year Takamatsu Five Arrows, who tied the Niigata Albirex BB for the league's second-best record (25-15), calling them a team with potential to win the title this weekend.

Size, Bryant said, gives the Five Arrows as good a shot as Niigata, the reigning champion Osaka Evessa and the Oita HeatDevils.

"When we talk about putting all the pieces together (at Tokyo), they have all the pieces," Bryant said of Takamatsu.

Such as?

"They have a shot blocker in (Julius) Ashby," Bryant said. "They have a shooter with No. 22 (Yu Okada). They have a speedy point guard (Rasheed Sparks) that penetrates and all he wants to do is pass. They have a rebounder (in Reggie Warren). It is just their size, and they have someone like Sparks who is just so athletic. You have to watch him all the time.

"They are a dangerous team."

But you can't discount the other three playoff teams.

"Niigata's going to be tough because of their experience. They play hard and they play physical," Bryant said.

Oita, led by Andy Ellis who played a league-high 1,478 minutes this season, is another quality team on the front line.

Ellis is 211 cm and weighs 115 kg.

He is joined in the low post by Chris Ayer (208 cm) and Justin Allen (203 cm) and 193-cm small forward Mikey Marshall, one of the finest all-around players in the league.

Ellis, who scored 25.1 ppg (No. 2 in the league behind Tokyo Apache John Humphrey's 25.9), can score from anywhere on the court (he took 254 3-point attempts in the regular season), but once he's in the paint, he can overpower many players.

"He's really huge," Bryant said of the bearded center.

But which team is the favorite?

Said Bryant: "But in talking about all that size, you have to defeat the defending champions, Osaka, who when they are on -- when they have Matt (Lottich) and when they have David (Palmer) and when they have Lynn (Washington) -- when they are shooting the ball, that size becomes minimal, because when you can really shoot the ball that means your big guy has to come out and chase you.

"So if Osaka is making shots, Osaka will win it easy."

From the mind-set of a coach, Bryant believes Osaka will employ a wide-open, spread-the-floor offense attack.

"Their strategy is going to be to try to keep the floor open," he predicted, "and make the big guys come out kind of in no man's land and have the giant trying to chase the little guy."

THE DIRTY WORK: Osaka small forward David Palmer knows it's best to step aside and let center Jeff Newton and power forward Lynn Washington wrestle with team's opposing big men for the rebounds. Still, he's an accomplished rebounder and grabs boards on a regular basis.

He finished the season with 275, including a season-best 14 on April 1.

"Palmer is a good rebounder, especially on the defensive end," Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi said.

"He (grabs) the defensive rebounds from the outside. He will not play against the big man. He will not fight against the big man on rebounding. Just Lynn is fighting the other big guys. So he joins the defense from the outside and grabs the rebounds."

For Palmer, a quick first step, anticipation and basketball smarts make this possible game after game.

HE'S BACK: A year ago, Taketo Aoki was a member of the Apache's playoff team. Now he's with the HeatDevils. He was traded for forward Jo Kurino, the No. 1 overall pick in the league's 2005 draft.

BETTER COMPETITION, BETTER LEAGUE: The Albirex began the season with high expectations. Then injuries created challenges for the coaching staff and players along the way.

"We were using seven players for a long time," Niigata center Nick Davis said, "and we only had eight players on our team. And once those players started coming back and filtering in, everybody started getting back."

The Albirex regained their form and its player rotation as the season progressed.

"I think we are definitely a better team (than last year)," Davis said when pressed about the subject. "But all the teams have improved around the league.

"I know our preparation and our coach preparation is the best around the league," he continued. "We just have to bring it to the table and get the job done."

SHARPSHOOTER: Naoto Nakamura made his Evessa debut on Feb. 4 and unceremoniously scored 7 points, including a 2-for-3 effort from the field.

It was the start of something big for Osaka.

Nakamura, who played under Tennichi for the JBL's Panasonic squad a few years ago, became Osaka's version of Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson --- instant offense off the bench.

He averaged 6.7 ppg in the season's final 17 contests. More impressive was his 40.6-percent accuracy from 3-point range (28-for-69).

"It gave us a lights-out shooter," Washington said of Nakamura. "Our offense is freelance at times, but we have certain places on the court where we need to be."

For Nakamura, that means he'll be seen roaming the perimeter, waiting for the ball and getting in a position to score.

"If you leave him open or come help or swing the ball (to him), it's pretty much good," Washington said. "He's helped us out a lot.

Nakamura's consistency has impressed his teammates.

"Man, it's just mechanics," Washington said. "He shoots it the same every time, and his pump fakes looks like his shot . . . and they (defenders) go flying by him.

"I say he's probably the best Japanese shooter in Japan."

Washington said Nakamura's quickness makes him a terrific shooting guard.

"If you are late, he's going to let you fly right by him, take one dribble and pull up," Washington said, "That boy can shoot. He can shoot."

UNHERALDED TALENT: Jersey No. 99 is not a typical player's number on the hardwood. It is more often associated with football's defensive linemen.

For Five Arrows power forward Diagne Thierno Seydou Nouro, it is his jersey number.

The native of Senegal played only 146 minutes during the regular season, 21 of which came in Takamatsu's regular-season finale.

It was an impressive effort.

He had season-highs of 17 points and eight rebounds and added one assist and two blocks in 21 minutes.

Nouro turned 20 a month before the 2006-07 season began.

"He has so much potential," Five Arrows point guard Rasheed Sparks said of Nouro, who has become a hard-nosed practice player.

"He really played well, and we needed that especially coming into the playoff round. We need every player to be in there.

"Before, he wasn't playing that much. He just showed them he can play well. That game was how he was playing in the preseason."

TIEBREAKER: Yes, Takamatsu beat Niigata in three of their four regular-season meetings and yes both teams had identical records, but that was not the determining factor used by the bj-league to give Niigata the No. 2 seed and Takamatsu the third seed.

The Albirex's point differential (+7.4) was better than the Five Arrows' margin (+3.3), and that was the criteria used.

Niigata averaged 83.2 ppg and gave up 75.8. Takamatsu scored 83.3 and allowed 80.0.

THE LAST WORD: "It is not just about winning and losing. It's about being able to sit next to your brother, your uncle, your auntie, your grandmother, share a box of popcorn, and share some sushi. That's what's important and (saying this),' Oh, by the way, we saw a great game today,' " said Bryant, offering his view on basketball as an ideal family gathering.



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